Ravishing Berg Songs from Susanna Phillips

United StatesUnited States  Berg, Beethoven: Susanna Phillips (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Davóne Tines (bass-baritone), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 24.11.2018. (HS)

BergSeven Early Songs

Beethoven — Symphony No.9 in D minor

Much of the San Francisco Symphony’s audience at Davies Symphony Hall Saturday evening doubtless came for Beethoven’s Ninth. They might have expected the opening 20-minute work, Berg’s Seven Early Songs, to be a sort of appetizer for the main event. What they got was a seductive and utterly delicious reading by soprano Susanna Phillips that brought out the sheer beauty in Berg’s lush harmonies and graceful melodies.

The second of four performances shone a flattering light on Alban Berg in his late, late Romantic mode. This was before the composer’s turn into twelve-tone dissonance, creating with Schoenberg and Webern ‘the second Viennese school’. Like Schoenberg, in 1905 to 1908 Berg’s writing explored the boundaries of tonality in dozens of songs for voice and piano, though not nearly as aggressively as Mahler had already done.

By 1928 Berg was already the sure-handed composer who gave us the Lyric Suite and Wozzeck. He picked seven of these expressive gems to orchestrate into this set, with sounds that glow and gleam, under and around these polished, gratifying melodies. The poems hint at an erotic charge, but the supple, sinuous music supplies the feeling.

Phillips and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas achieved remarkable clarity without losing any of those elements. Projected titles allowed non-German speakers to appreciate the words without constantly consulting their programs. For her part, Phillips would send her voice floating at some points and approach a conversational tone at others, letting the creamy richness of her high notes take over when necessary.

In the central song, ‘Traumgekrönt(‘Crowned by a dream’), Phillips conveyed a sense of wonder and profound ardor in the sensual melody. The orchestra plumbed the same lavish harmonic world as Wagner’s music for Tristan and Isolde in their Act II assignation. Of the rest, the third, ‘Nachtigall’ (‘Nightingale’), scored the most points for sheer beauty, and the fifth, ‘Im Zimmer’ (‘In the room’), painted a Debussy-like gauzy world with shimmering colors in barely more than a minute.

These performances of the Berg songs were recorded live for issue next year on the orchestra’s in-house label.

Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, which followed intermission, was a rambunctious affair in which Tilson Thomas seemed intent upon lighting a fire under the orchestra — a trait that was absent in a recent sluggish effort for the composer’s Eroica symphony.

A quieter dynamic in the opening measures might have heightened the sense of mystery Beethoven was striving for, but once the piece settled into the principal theme, Tilson Thomas focused on drawing emphatic gestures from each soloist and each section. In the first movement, marked Allegro non troppo, un poco maestoso, he put more emphasis on the ‘maestoso.’ A canny sense of tempo held things together.

A sense of solemnity carried through the second movement’s Allegro vivace, especially adding a more sonorous feel to the pastoral diversions from the skittering strings and woodwinds of the scherzo sections. The stateliness deepened with opulence from the strings that evoked a devotional hymn.

If the opening measures of the finale could have crashed a bit harder, the orchestral recitative and first statement of the ‘Ode, to Joy’ melody by the cellos and basses conjured a sense of beauty and urgency that eloquently foreshadowed the upcoming entry of the solo voices and chorus.

Bass-baritone Davóne Tines got the vocal portion of the finale going, not with stentorian proclamation but with supple humanity. Phillips returned to top the solo voices with her clear, warm sound. Even if, aside from Phillips, they were not the starriest bunch, Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano) and Nicholas Phan (tenor) completed a quartet that did justice to Beethoven’s concept.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, in their usual fine form, distinguished themselves with phrasing that veered from lusty to quietly fervent.

Whoever was responsible for the projected titles made a welcome decision by putting up the translations of the soloists and chorus’ texts, even when phrases were repeated. Beethoven applied different qualities to each iteration, and when following the words underlined the way he intended, their meanings evolved as the finale made its way to a glorious conclusion.

Harvey Steiman

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